BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — After years of investigating, the California Department of Justice accused the sheriff’s office of violating the rights of the people of Kern County. Sheriff Donny Youngblood disputes that, saying his department follows the law. But thy agree that body-worn cameras could help build trust and ensure justice.
Kern County is notorious for having one of the nation’s highest rates of officer-involved shootings. You may remember our investigative report from December, which found not all patrol deputies have body-worn cameras. Our Karen Hua found the county’s budget just couldn’t provide for cameras in rural areas. Now, a landmark settlement between the state and the county requires the county to find the money.
The state’s Department of Justice sued the sheriff’s office after a lengthy investigation, forcing the county to implement a 5-year plan to limit the use of force and increase transparency. Body cameras are at the center of that plan.
“What they will do is look at our policies and make sure that we’re following what we agreed we would do,” said Sheriff Donny Youngblood. “They’re requiring body cameras for everyone in the organization, which we supported.”
This comes as the sheriff says no one in the department has ever gotten away with violating a citizen’s civil rights, while the Department of Justice says otherwise.
“How is this settlement going to solve the police brutality issues within the sheriff’s department if the sheriff himself won’t even admit that there’s a problem?” said Pinky Ghuman, a local attorney.
Sheriff’s deputies shot over a dozen people last year, but only half of those shootings had bodycam footage. Experts say body cameras make it easier to hold law enforcement accountable, but only when they’re used the right way.
“A key challenge is specifying how the body cameras will be used,” said Ghuman. “One possible solution is to implement a very clear activation policy.”
Some lawyers say body cameras alone won’t eliminate excessive use of force.
“The community needs to be continuously engaged,” said Ghuman. “If you see something inappropriate happening, using your cell phone to document it so there’s a third-party account.”
The 5-year plan for the sheriff’s office covers more than body cameras. It also requires an independent monitor to look over the department’s use of force. The KCSO also agreed to publicize every officer-involved shooting. Legal experts say these changes could help keep the streets safe, but only time will tell.